Lately, I’ve been pretty discouraged about my work. Not about my chances of remaining employed, or making enough money to live on, but more about the effect of my work.
Perhaps I should explain that I’ve always taken a missional view of work. When I was 18 I sensed a call to ministry, and in obedience to God said “yes.” The practical application of that commitment has changed radically over the years since then, but the orientation of my work within God’s larger effort has remained constant.
I’ve been working for the government for three years now, in various IT-related roles, on quite a few different software development projects. What’s been discouraging is that most of those projects have been failures. The software we were developing didn’t work. The project failed. The funding was cut. Various reasons. But the outcome was the same: the people who were supposed to benefit from the new software didn’t get the benefit. The work I did was wasted.
This has been especially difficult for me. When I made a commitment to ministry I envisioned being a pastor or a missionary – but found myself not gifted for either of those careers. When I went into a career in IT I tried to find positions where I could use my technical gifts to serve within ministry-related organizations. But my experiences in Christian ministry organizations have been difficult and would be hard to characterize as successful.
So when I went into government work I was pleased to go into an agency whose purpose was to provide aid and services to the poor and disabled. I was glad that my efforts would be going into products that would help them in some way.
But it hasn’t worked out. For reasons beyond my control, the projects have mostly failed. Even worse, I see no hope for reform or change that will increase our chances of success in future projects. Indeed, things only look worse from here. I’ve begun to wonder – am I doing any good here at all?
I tend to be a glass half-empty guy. I have a well-honed gift of criticism. So I know that my natural tendency is to see the negative side of any situation. One of the ways I combat this bent is to consult with others to get alternative points of view. I hope to be persuaded to see things more positively.
This time, that strategy totally failed. Everybody I talked to saw our work situation as bad as I did. Or even worse. After talking to a few coworkers I was even more depressed.
Until I went to Bible study group this week! We’re studying N.T. Wright’s book Following Jesus. It’s a series of sermons that he preached. Each sermon was an overview of an entire book in the New Testament, and each chapter contains one whole sermon. This week, we studied his chapter on Colossians. In it, Wright focuses on these two verses from chapter 1:
“For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-16)
In the paragraphs that follow Wright focuses on the word “powers” and what it meant to Paul’s original readers. As Greeks, they believed that life was governed by a variety of powers, represented by the pantheon of Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, Hermes, Aphrodite, etc.). Every area of life had a powerful god governing what happened there. There wasn’t much that an average mortal could do about it.
Many of us have similar feelings of powerlessness within our culture. Our lives are governed by “powers” – the boss, the government, sometimes the spouse! – and there’s not much we can do about it. It can be discouraging to feel so helpless.
But here in the letter to the Colossians Paul says that the ruling powers and authorities are under the lordship of Christ. They were, in fact, created by Him, and are subject to His authority. So no “power” exists except that which Christ has put into place and permitted to rule. We know from scripture that God sometimes puts people in charge that He uses to accomplish His purposes, often subtly.
Situations that seem to be hopeless and efforts that seem to fail may in reality be victories. (By “reality” I mean when they are seen from God’s point of view, or from a human view many years later.) This understanding has to be taken on faith; there is no guarantee that God’s people will all see success in this life. Indeed, God (in the Bible) often seems to call His people to suffer. His long-term purpose is served by it. The best example of this is Christ on the cross: an apparent tragedy, a failure, but in reality it was a magnificent triumph over the power of sin.
We live in a culture that highly values success – with “success” being defined in terms of money, power, victory, and/or fame. To be counted as success, the money, power, etc. must be visible and measurable. In God’s kingdom, however, the values are different. Success in the Kingdom of God is defined in terms of personal character, of going along with or assisting God’s plan, of effecting positive change in others. These values are not always visible or measurable – except to God.
How does this help me with being discouraged at work? An understanding of these truths leads me to try three new ways of thinking that will help me in how I regard work:
- Lower my expectations for success in this world’s terms. I should not always expect to succeed in my work. Success in God’s kingdom may require a lack of success in the world of work.
- Consider what God is doing in this situation. God may be accomplishing His purposes through what appears to be a failure or series of failures. I may or may not get a chance to see what it is He is doing.
- Consider what God is doing in me. Can God use the difficult times in my life to assist with the changes He desires for me? Yes – not only can He use those times, it seems that periods of trials and tribulations are practically the sole source of the changes in my life that have helped me come closer to the character of Christ.